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Has Barebacking Become Basic?

Has Barebacking Become Basic?

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto for Pexels

In the age of PrEP and U=U, is condomless sex still a radical act or just an average Tuesday?

Sex without condoms has value and meaning. It’s pleasurable and all around delightful. To make such an affirmative statement in public 20 years ago would have evoked a savage response from most of the LGBTQ+ community. But times, and science, have certainly changed, and now condomless sex and “Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend” seem a humdrum happening in gay culture.

Bareback used to be a dirty word. It was coined in1997 in a Poz magazine article to describe condomless sex. It was the birth of the bareback phenomenon but also the bareback backlash. Barebackers were portrayed as murderers, lunatics, and traitors to their community. Some of that panic still lingers, but now open displays of condomless sex are ubiquitous online, in porn, and in sex clubs.

Tony Valenzuela was one of the first to speak publicly about the joys and political power of bareback sex and he was immediately criticized. He became the bareback poster boy and leaned into that image with his infamous Poz magazine cover photo naked and riding a horse, sans saddle, for the article entitled, “They Shoot Barebackers Don’t They?”

I tested positive in ’96 right before the bareback phenomenon took off. When I wrote or spoke honestly about the value of condomless sex I was called “dangerous,” “reckless,” and “irresponsible.” Later, during the early years of gay dating apps, I would regularly get messages accusing me of “spreading AIDS.”

The fury against speaking openly and positively about condomless sex was fierce and extreme. Various gay writers, from Michelangelo Signorile to Larry Kramer to Gabriel Rotello, heaped vicious attacks on “barebackers.” Gay pundit Dan Savage went so far as to compare bareback porn to kiddie porn.

Bareback porn became a flashpoint in this queer culture war. It was banned from events like International Mr. Leather. Porn producers, like Chi Chi LaRue, vowed to never make bareback porn. And AIDS Healthcare Foundation tried to get a law passed in California making condomless porn illegal.

But in the midst of all of this hysteria and HIV-phobia, two sensational things happened: HIV-positive gay men got a sexual identity and Treasure Island Media was born.

The word “bareback” became a word of resistance. It described HIV-positive sexual outlaws who had the audacity to pursue sex even while living with HIV. This was before the science of undetectable was known and so these men were seen as “infectious.” They were choosing to do things forbidden by gay culture and HIV prevention — enjoy condomless sex. Gay men had always enjoyed condomless sex throughout the HIV epidemic but now it had a name, and that name was associated with the danger and bravado of HIV-positive sexuality. A new queer sexual outlaw was born, and the world would never be the same.

Treasure Island Media was the original gay bareback porn studio. They understood that there was an unquenchable appetite for bareback porn, and they helped gay men embrace their hidden desires. What was so revolutionary about Treasure Island porn in its early years was that it explicitly and unashamedly showed HIV-positive men having sex. In the late ‘90s there was a distinct look that many HIV-positive people had because of antiretrovirals and living with the virus. But Treasure Island didn’t run away from that look. They embraced it and showed that even these men, the ones who were physically and literally stigmatized, still had a right to pursue sex and they could be sexy while doing it. It was radical to show HIV-positive sexuality. It was empowering and transgressive.

Fast forward to 2023 and bareback sex can certainly be empowering — but is it still transgressive? PrEP, the HIV prevention pill, and the understanding that an undetectable viral load means it’s impossible to transmit the virus are two scientific advancements that changed the trajectory of the epidemic and unleashed the second wave in our queer sexual revolution amidst the ongoing epidemic.

Undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U, helped remove some of the stigma associated with HIV-positive sexuality and gave much needed freedom to many positive men yearning to pursue sexual pleasure. PrEP allowed HIV-negative men to experience the freedom that HIV-positive men had known for decades: having condomless sex without the fear of getting HIV.
Men who had grown up on forbidden bareback porn could embrace their sexual desires involving skin to skin sex and semen exchange.

In 2023, condom-less porn has become the norm. At sex parties or saunas, you’d be hard-pressed to find men using condoms, and there are various bareback themed parties, websites, and merchandise.

All of this is great. The goal of a queer sexual revolution is that gay men pursue pleasure without shame and seize control of our bodies and sexualities. But the revolution has not reached everyone. HIV treatment and PrEP are still not available to all. HIV stigma and homophobia flourish. Gay sex is criminalized in nearly 70 countries around the globe, and our sexuality continues to be devalued and pathologized.

Our world is still filled with queer sexual outlaws. From Uganda to Russia to Indonesia, gay men still confront enormous risks to pursue pleasure. Queer people fight for fulfilling sex against considerable odds every single day. We can’t forget the political power of queer sex and we must integrate it into our global fight for queer liberation.

Now that condomless sex is as omnipresent in our culture as smartphones, let’s not forget the work that still needs to be done. Revel in your pleasure. But take a moment to think about how we can ensure all of our queer community can experience their own sexual ecstasy.

Alex Garner is a regular contributor for Plus with over 25 years of experience working as a community organizer, with a focus on uplifting the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV.

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Alex Garner